A study commissioned by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) recommends the resumption of night flights to offshore oil and gas platforms in the region and lays out a plan that incorporates upgraded and specific safety measures. Night flights were suspended in the wake of the March 12, 2009, offshore crash of a Cougar Helicopters Sikorsky S-92A that killed 17 of 18 aboard after that helicopter’s main gearbox (MGB) lubrication system failed.
The Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry (OHSI) commissioned by the C-NLOPB after the Cougar crash established specific conditions for the resumption of night flights. OHSI’s mandate was to investigate and report on all aspects of offshore helicopter safety not covered by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board’s (TSB) investigation of the accident. The study, performed by Gladstone Aerospace, found that those conditions have been met. They include:
• Helicopter equipment, readiness and crew training.
• Equipping search-and-rescue (SAR) helicopters with an automatic flight control system (AFCS or autohover).
• Having two S-92As with required SAR equipment available to conduct SAR operations; making sure these helicopters are properly crewed by those trained in SAR day, night and adverse weather operations, including the use of night-vision goggles and autohover; and ensuring response time is less than 20 minutes during normal flight operations and no more than 45 minutes outside normal flight operations. An outside auditor needs to evaluate Cougar’s SAR capabilities.
In addition to AFCS, the SAR helicopters are equipped with a rescue hoist with dual winch heads each capable of lifting 600 pounds at speeds up to 325 fpm. The hoist is operated by a rescue specialist in the aft cabin and is fitted with a 450-watt searchlight mounted on a swivel with an adjustable beam. The SAR helicopters also have forward looking infrared (Flir) and a dedicated Flir workstation in the cabin as well as the Nightsun searchlight, which can be slaved to follow the Flir automatically or be operated independently. The flight crews will be equipped with and trained on night-vision goggles.
• Pilot training. The helicopter service provider demonstrates that pilots flying at night are capable of successfully ditching in no-light conditions. Crews now train in the simulator to conduct ditching and the correct procedures exist and have been published for emergency descent and ditching. The fidelity of the current S-92A simulator enables pilots to train in all normal and emergency profiles, including low-light ditching. Cougar has produced a comprehensive night flight-training program and increased the training hours per session to four hours from two.
The report also notes that a fatigue management program (FMP) has been established for both transport helicopter pilots, SAR pilots and maintenance personnel and that fatigue is monitored continuously as part of the safety management system (SMS). While joint and coordinated rescue exercises with the Department of National Defense have yet to take place, they are planned in the near future.
Finally, the risk of bird strikes in the region, even at night, is omnipresent; however, the report notes that the likelihood at night is reduced except at dawn and dusk when gulls fly between nesting and feeding areas. Cougar will follow established arrival and departure routes out of St. John’s to mitigate any potential conflict.
The report recommends that Cougar resume night flight operations, “Since all of the concerns with respect to night flight operations have been addressed satisfactorily.”